Sanctification by Justification: How Christians Change


How do Christians grow? How does change happen? And if Christians are those who have been accepted by God once and for all because of what Jesus has done, then why bother?

To put it in theological terms: What is the key to healthy sanctification, or growth in godliness? And how is sanctification linked with justification, the once-and-for-all verdict that one has been put right with God through trusting faith in Jesus Christ? Such questions have been matters of perennial discussion, going back to the Apostle Paul himself, who understood that his teaching on justification by faith in the early chapters of Romans would be misunderstood as a license to sin (Rom. 5.20–6.1; 6.14–15).

A brief essay such as this one will not pretend to solve this centuries-old tension. Rather I will simply point out a neglected insight of two thinkers in the Dutch Reformed tradition regarding the relationship between gracious initiation into salvation and subsequent moral development. Herman Bavinck and G. C. Berkouwer, each in his own way, explained spiritual growth as taking place not by moving beyond justification but by feeding on it. That is, we do not grow in holiness by graduating on from God’s justifying grace in the gospel but by reflecting on, enjoying, and appropriating it more and more deeply throughout one’s life. Though it is deeply counterintuitive, we are sanctified not by moving past justification but by ever-deepening re-orientation toward it.

After presenting briefly Bavinck’s and then Berkouwer’s understanding of sanctification, we will summarize our findings and consider a few weaknesses in their teaching on Christian growth, weaknesses that show up especially in Berkouwer.

Herman Bavinck (1854–1921)

The recent completion of the publication of Bavinck’s magisterial four-volume dogmatics1 has made this thinker far more available to the English-speaking world than the smattering of previous translated works had allowed.

In his discussion of justification in the fourth and final volume, Bavinck writes: 'The gospel is the food of faith and must be known to be nourishment.'2 Drawing upon Luther’s Romans commentary, Bavinck later explains that believers are to trust solely in God’s righteousness imputed to them on account of Christ’s work. He then says: 'At the start of their lives as believers as well as in the course of their lives, they continue to take God at his word. They continue to believe that they are sinners and that their righteousness is grounded solely in the righteousness of God.'3

In his treatment of sanctification, Bavinck develops this more fully. He asserts that Christ wins for us holiness no less than righteousness. 'To understand the benefit of sanctification correctly,' he says, 'we must proceed from the idea that Christ is our holiness in the same sense in which he is our righteousness. He is a complete and all-sufficient Savior.'4 Christ’s work provides not only our righteousness but also our sanctification. Bavinck argues that a failure to include sanctification completely under the work of Christ (and not only justification) leaves one under the law.

Many people still acknowledge that we must be justified by the righteousness that Christ has acquired but believe or at least act in practice as if we must be sanctified by a holiness we bring about ourselves. If that were the case, we would not—contrary to the apostolic witness (Rom. 6.14; Gal. 4.31; 5.1, 13)—live under grace and stand in freedom but continue always to be under the law. Evangelical sanctification, however, is just as distinct from legalistic sanctification as the righteousness that is of faith differs from that which is obtained by works.5

This is not to say that Bavinck has forsaken the notion of progressive sanctification. Sanctification, he says, 'is continued throughout the whole of life and, by the renewing activity of the Holy Spirit, gradually makes the righteousness of Christ our personal ethical possession.'6 Holiness must be worked out; it is 'an organic process.'7

At the same time, however, justification and sanctification 'grant the same benefits, rather, the entire Christ; they only differ in the manner in which they grant him.'8 Sanctification is therefore 'by faith.' Sanctifying faith as 'a practical knowledge of the grace that God has revealed in Christ, a heartfelt trust that he has forgiven all our sins and accepted us as his children.'9 It is striking that this description of faith comes in his discussion of sanctification, not justification. 'Faith is not only needed at the beginning in justification, but it must also accompany the Christian throughout one’s entire life, and also play a permanent and irreplaceable role in sanctification. In sanctification, too, it is exclusively faith that saves us.'10 Sola fide applies to sanctification no less than justification.

We therefore err if we understand the gospel, the good news of God’s redeeming work in Christ freely offered to sinners and grasped only through faith, as exclusively associated with an initial justification upon conversion. The gospel is rather for all of life.

G. C. Berkouwer (1903–1996)

Berkouwer is even more radical in describing sanctification in terms of grace and the gospel than is Bavinck. We will see that this may have led him to neglect an important dimension to a robust theology of salvation. But first let us get clearly before us Berkouwer’s view of progressive sanctification.

At the heart of Berkouwer’s teaching on Christian growth is that it must be thought of in terms of faith: 'we can speak truly of sanctification only when we have understood the exceptionally great significance of the bond between Sola-fide and sanctification.'11 As with Bavinck, one must not view justification as accessed by faith in a more fundamental way than sanctification. 'We may never speak of sanctification as if we are entering—having gone through the gate of justification—upon a new, independent field of operation.'12

At critical junctures thereafter throughout Faith and Sanctification, Berkouwer returns to this notion that sanctification takes place by the nourishment generated in self-consciously enjoying one’s free justification. For instance:

Holiness is never a 'second blessing' placed next to the blessing of justification. . . . Our completion is only realized in Christ (Col. 2.10) 'for by one offering he hath perfected forever them that are sanctified' (Heb. 10.14). The exhortation which comes to the Church is that it must live in faith out of this fullness; not that it must work for a second blessing, but that it must feed on the first blessing, the forgiveness of sins. The warfare of the Church, according to Scriptural testimony, springs from the demand really to live from this first testimony.13

Berkouwer goes on to reiterate that 'there is never a stretch along the way of salvation where justification drops out of sight. Genuine sanctification—let it be repeated—stands or falls with this continued orientation toward justification and the remission of sins.'14 Healthy Christian living is not a matter of being freely justified and then moving on as a now-justified person to the 'next step' of sanctification. 'The believer’s constant ‘commerce’ with the forgiveness of sins and his continued dependence on it must be laid bare, emphasized, and kept in sight.'15

'The heart of sanctification,' says Berkouwer, 'is the life which feeds on justification.'16 As soon as sanctification begins to lift its eyes beyond justification—when spiritual progress begins to be partly viewed as self-resourced in some way—the mistake of self-sanctification or moralism is encroaching. Berkouwer remarks that 'any view of regeneration, faith, and sanctification, must be weighed and tested by the criterion of whether it does justice to the forgiveness of sins as the only ground and source of sanctification.'17 In Faith and Justification, written two years later, he underscored his conviction that 'sanctification is continually rooted in justification.' That is, 'justification 'may never become a station along the way, a harbor which, once passed through, may be forgotten. On the contrary, only in intimate connection with justification does talk of sanctification make any real sense.'18

Up till this point Berkouwer sounds roughly like Bavinck, though the former perhaps puts the point a bit more starkly. Sanctification is 'commerce with,' or 'feeding on,' justification. The quest for sanctification will rise no higher than faith-fueled reflection on and appropriation of justification. Yet Berkouwer is far more reluctant to speak of sanctification as a 'process,' even wondering if such a notion has proven destructive by ineluctably infecting the orthodox concept of sanctification with misplaced and even prideful self-effort. 'Sanctification is not a ‘process,’' he writes, 'certainly not a moral process, but it is being holy in Christ and having part, through faith, in his righteousness.'19 Berkouwer wants to use the term 'process' only with the utmost caution, due to the natural human propensity to forget that 'progress in sanctification can never consist in building up ourselves on our morality.'20 Berkouwer sees sanctification as simply increased marveling over the grace that invaded one’s life upon conversion, 'as Christ becomes more wonderful to us.'21

While Berkouwer takes the doctrine of sanctification in a direction here with which Bavinck may have been uncomfortable, both essentially agree that Christians are sanctified by the gospel; they are, in a sense, sanctified by their justification.


Much more would need to be said to gain a comprehensive understanding of sanctification in the theologies of Bavinck and Berkouwer. We have said little, for instance, of the role of the Holy Spirit, an important dimension to both theologians’ holistic understanding of sanctification.22 And below we will speak to the relationship between the Bavinck/Berkouwer insight and union with Christ. This essay focuses on one specific element, a critical and seemingly forgotten one, in understanding how sanctification works as far as the consciousness of the believer is concerned. Though Berkouwer makes the point somewhat more radically than Bavinck, these two Dutch Reformed thinkers are united in their understanding of justification as the self-conscious means of sanctification.

The point is not merely that justification must be viewed (logically) as preceding sanctification rather than the other way round. Nor is the point that justification provides the ground for sanctification. Nor are they simply agreeing that sanctification must not be thought of as moralistic self-effort. On all this orthodox Protestant theology of various stripes is agreed.

Bavinck and Berkouwer are making a more penetrating point. They understand that it is quite possible to decry self-resourced progress in holiness while retaining an unhealthy disconnect between justification and sanctification that sees justification as something beyond which one 'graduates' in Christian living. They argue that justification is to be seen as 'settled' in that the verdict is irreversibly delivered, yet justification is not to be seen as 'settled' in the sense that one must now therefore move on to sanctification. We grow in holiness to the degree that, and no further than, we remember and enjoy our justification.

Virtually all evangelical theologians deny that sanctification consists in self-effort or moral reformation. Spiritual progress, it is widely agreed, takes place by God’s grace. And the notion of 'sanctification by faith' is common parlance to many. Bavinck and Berkouwer, however, are unique in satisfactorily explaining how this happens. Sanctification by faith, they assert, is not the notion that one is sanctified in the sweat of moral effort that is done while trusting that the Holy Spirit will take this work and conform one to Christ’s image (is this how 'sanctification by faith' is generally perceived in the church today?). Rather, their answer to what it means to be 'sanctified by faith' is that the kind of faith that sanctifies is the faith that views resolutely one’s free justification. For only free grace transforms the heart.

Berkouwer's Neglect

We cannot end here, however, for there is an important difference between this pair of Dutch thinkers that has not yet been raised. While both speak of sanctification as fueled by believers’ self-conscious reflection on the freeness of their justification, Bavinck retains the historic Reformed doctrine of the new moral inclination imparted in regeneration, allowing his understanding of sanctification to be appropriately informed by it, while Berkouwer does not. Indeed, Berkouwer interacts directly with Bavinck on this as a point of disagreement and is reluctant to concede the reality of any kind of newly imported foreign power, wrought in the new birth, energizing sanctification.23

Bavinck is happy to speak of regeneration as 'the implantation of the spiritual life.'24 It is 'a spiritual renewal of those inner dispositions of humans that from ancient times were called ‘habits’ or ‘qualities.’'25 He remains firmly in the Reformed tradition as he affirms the impartation of a new moral impulse in regeneration.

Berkouwer, however, considers such a notion a regrettable vestigial remnant of Roman Catholicism’s teaching on infused grace.26 He is concerned, moreover, that a focus on this alleged new inclination toward holiness will reinforce the wrongheaded notions of 'improvement' in Christian spirituality. Such misplaced optimism will in turn undermine a healthy ongoing awareness of depravity. While Berkouwer does see the Christian life as one of growth, this growth is essentially growth in knowledge of our sinfulness and of God’s free mercy in Christ.27 Berkouwer is suspicious of explications of sanctification that speak of ethical or moral development rooted in a new spiritual impulse or inclination, and in his interaction with Bavinck regarding the new habitus he believes that 'Bavinck seems to leave himself wholly vulnerable' on this point.28

Incorporating Edwards?

Is it necessary, however, to choose between the spiritual habitus implanted in the new birth (Bavinck) and the growing sense of sinfulness throughout a believer’s life (Berkouwer)? I think not. Perhaps the single most profound grasp of the new 'taste' given to believers to incline after holiness in regeneration since the reformation belongs to Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758). The point to be made briefly here is that if Berkouwer had more sufficiently incorporated this central contribution of Edwards’s theology, he may not have explained sanctification so one-sidedly and yet could have retained his profound insight into the way healthy sanctification focuses on one’s free justification.

Throughout his writings Edwards argued that a believer’s regeneration introduces 'a change made in the views of his mind, and relish of his heart; whereby he apprehends a beauty, glory, and supreme good, in God’s nature, as it is in itself.'29 True Christians can confidently expect to grow in godliness because of the fundamental change wrought in the new birth. Edwards says:

the first effect of the power of God in the heart in regeneration, is to give the heart a divine taste or sense, to cause it to have a relish of the loveliness and sweetness of the supreme excellency of the divine nature; and indeed this is all the immediate effect of the divine power that there is, this is all the Spirit of God needs to do, in order to a production of all good effects in the soul. If God, by an immediate act of his, gives the soul a relish of the excellency of his own nature, other things will follow of themselves without any further act of the divine power than only what is necessary to uphold the nature of the faculties of the soul.30

Regeneration is the gift, Edwards elsewhere says, of 'a rectified palate,' inaugurating a life of delight-fueled sanctification.31 Spiritual taste buds are transformed—not perfectly, but decisively. To be sure, sin remains: 'the godly, after they have grace in their hearts, many times do gradually sink down into very ill frames . . . their lusts prevail.'32 Nevertheless, in the new birth, that which is good and holy becomes essentially beautiful instead of repulsive. 'A holy person is led by the Spirit, as he is instructed and led by his holy taste, and disposition of heart.'33 Progressive sanctification, in other words, flows out of regeneration. Moral transformation is wrought from the inside out by the vital spiritual renovation worked by God such that holiness now appears attractive.

While Bavinck did not develop it with the concentrated precision and depth that Edwards did, he did affirm this idea of a new spiritual sense of the heart granted in regeneration that ignites the new desires that impel believers forward in sanctification. Berkouwer, however, is suspicious of such an idea. And in his zeal to emphasize sanctification’s deliberate dependence upon justification, he neglects this helpful strand of Reformed teaching on sanctification.

A Concluding Observation

At this point we turn to a brief final evaluation of the dimension of Bavinck’s and Berkouwer’s understanding of sanctification that this essay has sought to illuminate. On the one hand, Bavinck and Berkouwer articulate an important and neglected insight for the twenty-first century church. Justification is not only relevant for entrance into the people of God and for final acquittal, but, in between these two events, is the critical factor in the mind of the believer for healthy progressive sanctification.

This insight should, however, be placed into the larger soteriological framework of union with Christ. As has been argued by many in the tradition to which Bavinck and Berkouwer belong, union with Christ should be seen as the broadest soteriological rubric, within which both justification and sanctification are subsumed. This is to suggest neither that a robust appropriation of union with Christ is somehow in tension with the Bavinck/Berkouwer insight nor that they overlook union with Christ. Both (Berkouwer to a lesser degree) incorporate union with Christ into their discussions of sanctification.34 Still, these two Dutch thinkers—especially Berkouwer—could have been truer to the soteriology of the New Testament if they had more self-consciously placed their discussions of 'sanctification by justification' within the broader conceptual category of being united to Christ. Paul himself, after all, countered the objection that justification provides a license to sin by first appealing to union with Christ (Rom. 5.20–6.23).


Herman Bavinck and G. C. Berkouwer articulate a neglected dimension to progressive sanctification that helpfully speaks to the perennial question of the relationship between justification and sanctification. Both assert that sanctification takes place, counterintuitively, by fixing one’s mind on justification. It is deliberate, self-conscious focus on justification, in all its startling freeness, by which one experiences spiritual progress.

Berkouwer makes the point more starkly than Bavinck, and in so doing wrongly downplays the new inclination or sense of the heart implanted in regeneration. Had Berkouwer listened more closely to an American strand of his own Reformed tradition (especially Jonathan Edwards), he could have had the more balanced view of Bavinck while retaining his basic point as to the critical role justification plays in ongoing sanctification. And it would be helpful if both Bavinck and Berkouwer more consistently placed their understanding of sanctification more explicitly against the broader soteriological backdrop of union with Christ. Nonetheless, these two Dutch theologians share a significant insight into the nature of healthy progressive sanctification—one which wonderfully preserves the centrality of the gospel for all of life.

This is an abridgement of an article that first appeared in the Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology.

Picture of Dane Ortlund

Dane Ortlund

Dane Ortlund is Senior Vice President for Bible publishing at Crossway Books in Wheaton, Illinois, USA. He is the author of A New Inner Relish: Christian Motivation in the Thought of Jonathan Edwards (Christian Focus, 2008), and Edwards on the Christian Life: Alive to the Beauty of God (Crossway, 2014).
Picture of Dane Ortlund

Dane Ortlund

Dane Ortlund is Senior Vice President for Bible publishing at Crossway Books in Wheaton, Illinois, USA. He is the author of A New Inner Relish: Christian Motivation in the Thought of Jonathan Edwards (Christian Focus, 2008), and Edwards on the Christian Life: Alive to the Beauty of God (Crossway, 2014).